Not surprisingly, our just completed ten day visit to Piemonte confirmed that there is nowhere else my wife and I would rather visit in Europe when it comes to food, wine, the incomparable beauty of the countryside scenery and the warmth and charm of the people. This time around, we took a small apartment in La Morra (we typically had stayed in a boutique hotel in Isola d'Asti). It was a good decision, as we were able to settle into the village, doing everyday things like visiting the best local cafe for morning coffee, dropping by several of the local wine bars and getting a sense of what it is like to be bit more than passing tourists. We also were closer to Alba and many of the smaller Langhe towns that we like best. We even cooked at "home" a few times, enabling us to shop a bit at the Saturday market in Alba for fruit, a few vegetables, cheese and salume.
In terms of dining out, we covered every one of our favorite restaurants and more, sharing several terrific meals with mr. and ms. Allende, who as many readers here know, are consummate American experts on food and wine in the region (and also terrific company).
Over the course of more than a dozen meals, we were reminded of the pleasures of dining in Piemonte's many family owned restaurants (in fact the ones we love are all run by owner families). For example, it is hard to imagine spending a better afternoon than our extended lunch with the Cordero family at Il Centro in Priocca. We have known Enrico, who masterfully runs the front of the house and his wife Elide (the chef) for several decades. He ranks with the best restauranteurs we have encountered anywhere, and Elide's cooking keeps getting better and better. And this time, we were able to begin to get to know Enrico's son Giampiero, who now helps run the dining rooms and is a gifted wine steward. The newest addition to our restaurant list, Trattoria Marsupino in Briaglia (a great steer from allende that we visited twice) is similar. The restaurant has been in business in the same location for over a hundred years, the stoves having been passed down from one generation to another. Today, the family matriarch handles the casa, her son the stoves, his wife the front room and their son the cellar. And the food aside (which was marvelous), they are just terrific people. The joy of sharing in the family enterprise repeats itself again and again, including at places like I Bologna in Rochetta Tanaro, Il Veglio in Annunziata near La Morra (here two young couples are at work), La Luna Nel Pozzo in Neive and La Coccinella in Serravalle Langhe (the shared venture of three brothers).
We also noted the ever growing emphasis at our favorite restaurants on quality, seasonal ingredients. For example, you probably will never have better veal than Elide presents in her vitello, salsa Cavour or a more incredible honey than we found in Marsupino's apple, ice cream and honey-sauced dolce. And then there was Il Veglio's incredible "insalatina" of zucchini, rabbit and foie gras. Notably, the chefs at Veglio, La Coccinella, Marsupino and La Ciau del Tornavento in Treiso have moved beyond the traditional dishes. There is more fish and a terrific use of market vegetables. But at the same time, all the standbys are there and new dishes are very grounded.
Our best meals? Il Veglio, especially the second time around (we ate there twice, once with the allendes); Il Centro (of course); Marsupino (particularly our second meal, a five course traditional tasting menu for just 45€ that consisted of vitello tonnato, a beautiful salad of capon and spring vegetables, veal or rabbit secondi, the aforementioned honey-based dessert and as an alternative, a molten chocolate cake); a very good lunch at Trattoria della Posta near Monforte d'Alba; an unplanned but delicious meal at La Luna Nel Pozzo; and a very special lunch with the allendes at La Coccinella (great seafood and dishes prepared with spring vegetables). We had good meals at I Bologna and Ciau as well (we returned to Ciau for the first time in perhaps ten years). However, this year's visits to San Marco and Da Bardon were a bit less successful, as the former flubbed a version of plin and the secondi we had at Bardon did not succeed.
Best dishes? Vitello with salsa Cavour at Il Centro; a combination of vitello tonnato and tuna stuffed peppers at San Marco; asparagus "carbonara" at La Luna nel Pozzo; wild asparagus with egg and fonduta at Marsupino; the baked onion stuffed with sausage and bechamel at Trattoria della Posta; the capon insalatina at Marsupino; tagliarin al sugo di salsiccia di Bra at Il Centro (albeit we also had great tagliarin al sugo at Veglio, Da Bardon, Marsupino and I Bologna);the plin at Ciau and also the agnolotti there filled with Seirasse cheese; tagliatelle with morels and asparagus at Coccinella; fettuccine with onions and peppers at Veglio; fried frogs legs with a garlic green sauce at Trattoria della Posta; grilled scampi, gamberi and assorted other fish at Coccinella; tagliatta di vitello at Trattoria della Posta; roast suckling pig and its sausage at I Bologna; the cheese selection at Il Centro; panna cottas at Veglio, Bardon and Trattoria della Posta; and all the deserts at Marsupino.
And with that, we drank a parade of marvelous barberas, barolos and barbarescos, with some lovely Langhe and Roero whites (particularly the Arneis) thrown in for good measure.